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Who Taught You to Drive?

State highway fees follow the rental fleets

Many rental companies, such as U-Haul, license their vehicles in the state in which they are based.

Peter DeMarco for The Boston Globe

Many rental companies, such as U-Haul, license their vehicles in the state in which they are based.

Jerry Campbell walks past a U-Haul truck-rental center whenever he goes to his gym. Recently, he noticed that all the vehicles had Arizona license plates.

On his next trip to the gym, he observed the same thing. And the trip after that. And the trip after that.

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“Any idea why U-Haul is allowed to operate in Massachusetts with all of its vehicles having Arizona plates?” asked Campbell, a reader from Medford. “It would be great if one of your Registry contacts could explain.”

What Campbell’s getting at, of course, is registration fees.

The money you pay to register your vehicle in Massachusetts helps cover the upkeep of state roads and bridges. U-Haul is headquartered in Phoenix, so the company registers all its vehicles in Arizona. But since some of U-Haul’s fleet uses Massachusetts roads, it stands to reason that the company should pay something for using our state’s byways.

I did some research, and it turns out that U-Haul is not getting a free ride. U-Haul does pay the state for use of Massachusetts roads, but in a very different way than owners of passenger vehicles do.

U-Haul, as well as other interstate rental companies and businesses that haul goods with tractor-trailers and the like across state lines, is required to conform to something called the International Registration Plan. Boiled down, the plan requires businesses to pay an annual fee to each state their vehicles travel in. The more miles their vehicles log in a particular state, the bigger the fee to that state.

Massachusetts, along with the other 47 lower states, the District of Columbia, and all 10 Canadian provinces, is a partner in the International Registration Plan. Businesses pay one registration fee to the state where they are located — in U-Haul’s case, Arizona. That state, in turn, distributes shares of the money to other states or provinces, often keeping some for itself.

Vehicles that are governed by the IRP are easy to spot: just look for the word “apportioned” written on the license plate — meaning that “portions” of the vehicle’s registration fee go to different states.

While it costs $60 to register a passenger vehicle in Massachusetts every two years, it can cost hundreds each year to register a commercial vehicle. With big rigs, fees can reach $1,600 annually, so even a portion of it can be substantial.

Suppose one of the U-Haul rental vans that Campbell sees on his walk to the gym travels 10,000 miles in a year. If half of those miles — 5,000 — were logged in Massachusetts, U-Haul would have to pay Massachusetts 50 percent of whatever it would cost to normally register that vehicle in Massachusetts.

If another 25 percent of the vehicle’s miles were logged in Arizona, U-Haul would have to pay Arizona 25 percent of whatever it would cost to normally register that vehicle in Arizona. And so on for each state the vehicle travels in.

As you might imagine, there’s a heap of paperwork involved. Each time a U-Haul vehicle is rented, its mileage must be recorded, and miles must be assigned to the states the vehicle travels in. Each state has a different registration fee — in Massachusetts, a truck owner pays $20 for every 1,000 pounds his vehicle weighs when loaded — so those must be calculated as well.

Still, it’s a much better system than pre-IRP days, when you’d sometimes see big rigs adorned with separate license plates for every state they traversed.

“I think IRP gives carriers the flexibility to base their operations in one jurisdiction and operate in all of them,” said Tim Adams, chief executive officer of International Registration Plan Inc., a nonprofit agency that monitors compliance. “It was created 40 years ago to ensure that revenue was shared based on the operation of the vehicles.”

Over the past 12 months, Massachusetts has received nearly $11.3 million from other states that have collected on its behalf, said Sara Lavoie, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation.

During that same time span, the state collected $20.5 million in IRP fees for vehicles with “apportioned” Massachusetts plates.

In general, apportioned plates are required for rental vehicles, as well as larger commercial vehicles — specifically, those whose gross vehicle weight exceeds 26,000 pounds with or without a trailer, or any vehicle with three or more axles — that transport “property . . . or persons” between at least two states.

National commercial carriers generally always have apportioned plates. But so do businesses such as grocery-store chains, including Quincy-based Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., which ship produce and food long distances.

Some exceptions and payment variations are allowed, but they’re too involved to list here.

To make IRP accounting more manageable, companies are allowed to tally the miles driven by all the vehicles they own — known as fleet mileage — and pay their home state one large registration fee for all the vehicles. The number of miles its entire fleet drives, per state, is what’s used when distributing funds.

Sebastien Reyes, U-Haul’s director of external communications, says IRP does require effort, but isn’t a burden.

“U-Haul uses a mileage software program to determine the miles traveled in each jurisdiction,” Reyes e-mailed me. “We have a clear picture of the customer miles traveled and the fees distributed under the IRP to Massachusetts. . . . Each jurisdiction gets their fair share of license fees.”

Still, with any rental, I gather it’s a slightly inexact science. Were you to rent a van for a trip from Boston to Albany, I suppose your rental company could simply allot 137 miles for travel along the Massachusetts Turnpike (the distance from Logan International Airport to the New York State line) and 34 miles for travel within New York along highways to Albany.

But if you decided to take a side trip, how’s the rental company to know whether your extra miles were spent traveling to Williamstown, Mass., or Cooperstown, N.Y.?

Reyes wouldn’t answer that question for me, though I imagine GPS tracking devices could solve the problem, if they don’t already. The number of U-Haul vehicles operating in Massachusetts, and the miles they log here, was proprietary information, he added.

He did offer me this tidbit, however. The rental trucks and vans Campbell sees on his way to the gym are not necessarily assigned to that location, or even to Massachusetts. Given enough months, the entire parking lot could turn over, Reyes said.

“The need for U-Haul customers to make one-way moves from, let’s say, Boston to San Francisco or Boston to Chicago does dictate, in large part, where the fleet travels.”

Peter DeMarco can be reached at peter.demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.
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